Setting the Pace
The cool wind blows strong, and at 5:30 a.m. the grass is still veiled by a pearly cloak of dew glistening in the sun, but the men’s crew team is already getting ready for practice. Surrounded by athletes towering six feet or taller, Jillian Howell ’12 is hard to spot at first. But when the team settles into the narrow boat, Howell is impossible to ignore.
During practice, Howell, the female captain of the men’s crew team, is responsible for carrying out the coach’s will and giving tactical orders. On the water, the rowers can’t see which direction they are heading. Howell, as the coxswain, is the eyes of the team.
It takes a certain kind of person to be the only woman on—and the captain of—a varsity men’s team. In the classroom the global studies and environmental studies major displays the same qualities that make her successful on the water. She maintains “the very careful balance of being a great leader and also being a great team player,” said Environmental Studies Professor Travis Reynolds. “Somebody in charge of making things happen, but also on the same team.”
Howell, who started rowing her freshman year at Colby, moved quickly from a rower in the women's novice boat to her current role in the men's varsity shell. Because of her small stature, it would have been challenging for her to earn a seat in the varsity women’s eight. “I have always been on a team—I have always been involved with sports,” said Howell. “I wanted to continue doing that.”
Head crew coach Stew Stokes remembers when he offered Howell the coxswain position on the men’s team. “She was sitting right there, in that chair,” he said, pointing, “and her eyes lit up. She smiled, and I knew right then that we asked the right person. It was clear that there was a competitive side of her that she did not feel the need to live and show every day, but which is visually very much present.” Stokes interpreted it as “If I can be a varsity athlete at a college level, I’m in.”
That is the picture of Howell: quiet, soft-spoken, yet firm and determined. “She is extremely bright. She is relatively unflappable. She is pretty steady in terms of her demeanor, and that is a really important skill as a coxswain,” said Stokes. During her sophomore year she was elected the first female captain of a men’s team in Colby history, according to Stokes.
“It was hard at first, when I first joined the team,” said Howell. “I didn't know that much about rowing, because I had only been rowing for a few months. And then I was thrown into the men’s varsity boat.”
How does a novice tell more-experienced rowers what to do? “It was, like, really overwhelming,” Howell recalled.
Howell’s love for the sport has grown ever since. “Every day is different. There are different challenges—even if you have the same eight guys in a boat two days in a row, the rows are never the same.” The team practices five days a week. Once the ice leaves Messalonskee Lake, they row at the Colby-Hume Center seven miles from campus. “When the sun is rising or setting, the lake is just so beautiful,” said Howell, “I think it is really fortunate that we get to row there.”
Stokes thinks it was the gender difference that made Howell effective as a captain. “Sometimes you need to separate out your duty as a friend from your duties as a captain. That gender gap gives her the flexibility and freedom to do that,” said Stokes.
Howell does not feel she is treated differently, but some see her gender right away. “It is still really funny to see the freshmen’s reaction [to me being the captain],” said Howell.
Rowing is a big part of her life, and Howell, like many other students, juggles her role as an athlete along with her pursuit of knowledge and personal growth. She is part of the first environmental studies capstone seminar investigating environmental policies in an international context.
In a group working with NGOs in Africa, Howell was the final editor on a team of six students who developed reports on the state of the environment in Ethiopia. Her individual project concentrated on electrification and renewable energy in rural areas, both long term and short term. “She was the master coordinator that made this come together,” said Reynolds. Howell has since been Reynolds’s research assistant and worked on different projects, such as making GIS [geographic information systems] maps of century-old forest fragments protected by churches in northern Ethiopia.
As a natural leader on and off the water, Howell believes there is a time for talking and a time for listening. “It just degenerates into chaos if everyone’s talking and no one’s listening. If they [team members] disagree, there is a way to talk about it afterwards,” said Howell.
Howell has “this really kind of calm in the face of chaos,” said Reynolds. “In the GIS lab twenty-four hours straight and still laughing. … Instead of freaking out, she makes you laugh.”
As green grass replaced melting snow and Colby welcomed another graduation season, Howell was trying to figure out where to go and what to do after Colby. Still in the job-search process, she was hoping to enter the environmental field. The road ahead may be full of unknowns, but Howell’s experience at Colby—from late nights in the lab to shouting orders at a boat of male athletes—has helped her build a strength of character that will guide her through challenges in the future.